Assured directorial debut from British actress Rachel Ward
The directorial debut of British actress Rachel Ward, Beautiful Kate is an assured adaptation of a novel by American writer Newton Thornburg, which was originally set in 1970s Idaho. The film-maker has transplanted the story to contemporary rural Australia, where after a 20-year absence, writer Ned (Ben Mendelshon) returns with his much younger fiancee Toni (Maeve Dermody) to his isolated family farm in the Flinders Ranges region. The belligerent patriarch Bruce (Bryan Brown) lies dying, tended by Ned’s sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths). It soon becomes clear that the whole family is haunted by the events of a quarter century earlier, when Ned’s twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe) and elder brother Cliff met tragic ends.
Ward fluidly moves between present and past, giving each time frame a distinctive visual sensibility. In the flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s, we’re aware of both the fertile surrounding landscapes, and Ned’s increasingly obsessional feelings towards Kate. In the present-day sequences however, which are more deliberately framed, the dominant mood is one of decay: the aridity of the terrain and the shabby domestic interiors become metaphors for the family’s emotional paralysis. In concentrating on the troubled father-son relationship the film unwisely removes two of the most interesting female characters from the story, whilst the coda involving reconciliation with the Aboriginal community feels unearned. Yet this remains an impressively acted drama, with Lowe’s striking portrayal of the luminous title character marking her out as one to watch.